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Ó Caoláin - Pre-election budget doesn't go far enough after years of squandered opportunities

7 December, 2005


Speaking on the Budget in the Dáil this evening Sinn Féin spokesperson on Finance, Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin said, "With this Budget Fianna Fáil is attempting to erase the memory of all those budgets from Champagne Charlie McCreevy who rewarded the very wealthy and allowed the gap between rich and poor in Irish society to widen.

"The Government is now attempting to be seen to address inequality. If that effort results in some positive and long overdue measures then that is welcome. All credit to those who have campaigned long and hard for social justice and economic equality. We in Sinn Féin count ourselves among that number.

"For Sinn Féin the real test is not rhetoric but the putting into effect of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It means "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" in practice.

"But over almost a decade in office the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Coalition has failed that test.

"Despite the unprecedented prosperity in the Irish economy, it is one of the most inequitable in the developed world.

"This level of poverty is inexcusable given the affluent Irish economy of the 21st century. Record budget surpluses have been achieved year after year, yet the opportunity to move towards an Ireland of Equals has been squandered. Very belatedly some positive measures are being undertaken in this Budget but this should have begun in 1997 when this Coalition took office.

"There is sufficient wealth in our society to ensure that, at the very least, no child should want for any of the basics of life and all should be able to look forward to a full and rewarding future. The lack of vision, the incompetence and the conservatism of successive governments in this State have robbed generations of children of their birthright.

"Reversing all of this will mean a change in policy, a shift in emphasis towards social need and equality. As we in Sinn Féin have repeatedly pointed out, such a change will include moving away from this outdated model of annual budgeting and the 'Budget Day' ritual and towards multi-annual budgeting based on medium to long-term planning.

On Childcare Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"The Early Childhood Supplement of €1000 per child per year is a disappointment. It will do little for those who cannot afford the very high cost of childcare places for their children. Similarly the increase in Child Benefit should have been greater.

"Maternity Leave increases are welcome but it is a disgrace that nothing has been done on paternity leave.

"The Minister has announced a National Childcare Investment Programme up to 2010, promising 65,000 additional places. We must await the detail of this plan but, as I have stated, the Government has an awful lot of catching up to do. I hope that this plan will not go the way of the National Health Strategy which was unveiled in 2001 in the run-up to the 2002 General Election. That strategy is now in tatters like the promise of a world-class health service that accompanied it."

On Health the Cavan/Monaghan TD said:

"If there is one fatal flaw in this Government's political strategy it is located in the biggest spending Government department and it is in the hands of the Progressive Democrats -- Health.

"There is total incoherence on the part of this Government on this key area of social provision. Minister Cowen carried that contradiction into the Budget when he extended the tax breaks for the developers of private hospitals. The tax foregone in this way should instead be spent on the provision of the primary care centres were promised but which were shelved by the Tánaiste last year. But there is nothing in this Budget to provide for those essential primary care centres which must be part of the solution to the crisis in our Accident and Emergency departments.

"There is nothing in this Budget to provide for the 3,000 additional acute hospital beds that are needed to address the crisis in our health system. "The Government could and should have extended the medical card to all those under 18. This would have cost €223 million -- a very affordable sum in the context of this Budget, but one which would have been of very real benefit to many families with children. I deplore the failure of the Government once again to introduce this measure.

"There is nothing in this Budget for the 325 people who today are languishing in our Accident and Emergency units on trolleys and chairs. And A&E is only the tip of the iceberg in the health service crisis."

On Tax he said:

"I welcome the removal of a range of property-based tax reliefs. But the Government deserves no credit for this. We didn't know what most of those reliefs cost. We do know that speculators made a massive amount of money out of them. This Government and the speculators who benefited from their tax breaks are like fraudsters who know the game is up and who now have to move on to another scam. And that scam is assuredly the tax breaks for the private health industry."

On Housing he said:

"The Minister spoke of a significant package of social and affordable housing. But we heard nothing to provide for the 73,000 new social housing units required by 2012 and as recommended by the National Economic and Social Council. For a decade this Government has totally abandoned housing policy to the market and the losers have been those people in the 48,000 households on the local authority waiting lists."

On Disability he said:

Like Health, this Budget has been a major disappointment for peope, with disabilities. For years we have sought a Cost of Disability Payment which recognises the additional costs and burdens borne by people with disabilities. I deplore the Government's failure once again to deliver it.

On Transport Deputy Ó Caoláin said:

"The Minister used the Budget to re-announce the Transport 21 package which was itself a recycled package. But like so much else in this Government's record that package does not measure up to scrutiny. Public transport provision is still totally inadequate and is virtually non-existent in many part of the country such as the Border region."

Concluding he said:

"This is undoubtedly a pre-election budget. The Minister has his plans set out to win the General Election for Fianna Fáil in 2007 or perhaps next year. He and the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and their colleagues are hoping that the people have very short memories, that they will forget the waste and the inequality of the McCreevy years, the waste and the inequality that they are desperately trying to cover up now. But people are not so foolish. After nearly a decade of rule by this Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government the people know that this Coalition has squandered theopportunities of the economic boom."ENDS

Full text of speech by Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin TD

Like the student who wasted his college years this Government is now trying to cram in the run-up to the big final exam -- the next General Election. With this Budget Fianna Fáil is attempting to erase the memory of all those budgets from Champagne Charlie McCreevy who rewarded the very wealthy and allowed the gap between rich and poor in Irish society to widen.

This year was the 20th birthday of the Progressive Democrats, a party that has had an influence on economic policy in this State way beyond its electoral strength. It seems that Minister Cowen's predecessor Charlie McCreevy was even more influential in the genesis of that party than we previously thought. And he certainly formed a powerful axis with them when he was in Government. But after the Taoiseach discovered he was a socialist last year, Minister McCreevy's days in Finance were numbered and today he languishes in Brussels, albeit on a very hefty salary.

The Government is now attempting to be seen to address inequality. If that effort results in some positive and long overdue measures then that is welcome. All credit to those who have campaigned long and hard for social justice and economic equality. We in Sinn Féin count ourselves among that number.

The attempt by the Government to catch up, to make up for lost time and for wasted money is due in no small measure to the growing political strength of Sinn Féin. In the wake of Sinn Féin electoral advances in the 2004 local government and EU Parliament elections, the Taoiseach discovered he was a socialist.

In 2005 Fianna Fáil has rediscovered that its sub-title is 'the Republican Party'. Even the Progressive Democrats now want to be called republicans. And the State commemoration of the 1916 Rising is to be revived.

In the closing months of the current Dáil, as a General Election approaches either in 2006 or early 2007, we believe this pattern will continue. This Budget is part of the picture.

For Sinn Féin the real test is not rhetoric but the putting into effect of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It means "cherishing all the children of the nation equally" in practice.

But over almost a decade in office the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Coalition has failed that test.

Published in 2005, the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions shows that one in seven children in the 26 Counties - almost 150,000 - are living in consistent poverty. They suffer economic hardship on a weekly basis that excludes them from the quality of life and the opportunities for their future enjoyed by a majority of children.

A further significant minority of 242,000 children - some 23.9% of young people in the State - are at risk of poverty. They live in households which have less than 60% of the State-wide median income.

The National Anti-Poverty Strategy set the year 2007 as the target date for consistent child poverty to be reduced to below 2% and eliminated altogether if possible. Clearly, with some 14% of children in consistent poverty, the target is far from being reached in 2007. The truth is that this target should have been reached ahead of time in an economy which has seen growth almost unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

Despite the unprecedented prosperity in the Irish economy, it is one of the most inequitable in the developed world. In the United Nations Human Development Index for 2005 this State comes third last in a league of 18 OECD countries in terms of poverty. Only the United States and Italy, among the developed countries, have worse levels of poverty and inequality. It should be noted that the so-called 'United Kingdom' is fourth from the bottom in this league and that included in its figures are the Six Counties where child poverty levels are worse than in the 26 Counties, adding to the total of avoidable hardship for children in Ireland.

This level of poverty is inexcusable given the affluent Irish economy of the 21st century. Record budget surpluses have been achieved year after year, yet the opportunity to move towards an Ireland of Equals has been squandered. Very belatedly some positive measures are being undertaken in this Budget but this should have begun in 1997 when this Coalition took office.

There is sufficient wealth in our society to ensure that, at the very least, no child should want for any of the basics of life and all should be able to look forward to a full and rewarding future. The lack of vision, the incompetence and the conservatism of successive governments in this State have robbed generations of children of their birthright.

Reversing all of this will mean a change in policy, a shift in emphasis towards social need and equality. As we in Sinn Féin have repeatedly pointed out, such a change will include moving away from this outdated model of annual budgeting and the 'Budget Day' ritual and towards multi-annual budgeting based on medium to long-term planning. It will require participatory democracy with the people and the Oireachtas having a real say in policy and in spending plans, Department by Department,Minister by Minister.

Childcare

In November 2004 Sinn Féin in the Dáil tabled a motion calling for the development of a comprehensive and accessible childcare infrastructure and a wide range of measures to assist parents, whether caring for children full-time in the home or working outside the home and using childcare services. 50 TDs supported the motion in the Dáil division.

Prior to Budget 2005 Sinn Féin published our proposals as our Budget Priorities document Putting Children First. In doing so we consulted widely within the childcare sector. Our Budget 2006 Priorities updated and reiterated those proposals.

The Dáil debate on the Sinn Féin motion heard Government commitments to develop childcare in the State but the subsequent Budget 2005 was a major disappointment and further fuelled the national debate and the demand for action. It was widely recognized that the biggest omission from Minister Cowen's first Budget was Early Childhood Care and Education.

Budget 2005 was followed by a national debate on the need for this society to care better for our children. The debate recognized the intense pressure placed on parents and children and family life in an economy with high demand for labour from employers. But the nature of work itself has also been addressed in the debate and the demand has been raised, as never before, that the work of people caring for children in the home must be fully recognized and supported. The same applies to other carers in the home also.

The National Economic and Social Forum (NESF) published a landmark report on Early Childhood Care and Education in September 2005. In 2000 the National Childcare Strategy had stated that childcare provision was "uncoordinated, variable in quality and in short supply". That this is still the case in 2005 was confirmed by the NESF report which pointed to "the very inadequate implementation of policy on childcare in Ireland and the markedly insufficient financial investment in the education and care ofour younger citizens".

The NESF Report set the benchmark which this Government must reach. The measures announced by the Minister fall short of that benchmark. These measures represent some progress but cannot make up for almost a decade of neglect in the whole area of Early Childhood Care and Education by this Government.

The Early Childhood Supplement of €1000 per child per year is a disappointment. It will do little for those who cannot afford the very high cost of childcare places for their children. Similarly the increase in Child Benefit should have been greater. There was no movement on Child Dependant Allowance which has been frozen for years and could and should have been increased.

Maternity Leave increases are welcome but it is a disgrace that nothing has been done on paternity leave.

The Minister has announced a National Childcare Investment Programme up to 2010, promising 65,000 additional places. We must await the detail of this plan but, as I have stated, the Government has an awful lot of catching up to do. I hope that this plan will not go the way of the National Health Strategy which was unveiled in 2001 in the run-up to the 2002 General Election. That strategy is now in tatters like the promise of a world-class health service that accompanied it.

Health

If there is one fatal flaw in this Government's political strategy it is located in the biggest spending Government department and it is in the hands of the Progressive Democrats -- Health. The Government may hope that the measures announced today will take the heat out of childcare as an election issue. They won't. Not enough has been done. But even more significantly the fundamentally flawed approach to our health services by this Government will come back to haunt it as surely as that approach has caused misery to so many people and prevented the development of what should be the best health service in Europe. Look at the contradictions at the heart of this Government. Before the last General Election Fianna Fáil said they wanted to 'the end of the two-tier health system'. The Tánaiste denies there is a two-tier system. She goes further. Exactly a year ago she stated: 'I believe in a minimalist role for the State in all our lives, including health care."

In June this year, she stated:

"The fact that more and more people are getting private health care is a good thing. It's a sign of increasing disposable income."

There is total incoherence on the part of this Government on this key area of social provision. Minister Cowen carried that contradiction into the Budget when he extended the tax breaks for the developers of private hospitals. The tax foregone in this way should instead be spent on the provision of the primary care centres were promised but which were shelved by the Tánaiste last year. But there is nothing in this Budget to provide for those essential primary care centres which must be part of the solution to the crisis in our Accident and Emergency departments. Those centres are also essential for general public health as primary care is the most effective level of healthcare.

But instead the Tánaiste prefers to provide tax breaks for the private health system and to open private clinics like that in Sandyford which will be unaffordable and inaccessible to people with medical cards and others on low incomes.

There is nothing in this Budget to provide for the 3,000 additional acute hospital beds that are needed to address the crisis in our health system. The Government could and should have extended the medical card to all those under 18. This would have cost €223 million -- a very affordable sum in the context of this Budget, but one which would have been of very real benefit to many families with children. I deplore the failure of the Government once again to introduce this measure.

There is nothing in this Budget for the 325 people who today are languishing in our Accident and Emergency units on trolleys and chairs. And A&E is only the tip of the iceberg in the health service crisis.

Health is the big omission from this Budget. It will reinforce the two-tier system. It will not provide the extra nurses and doctors and hospital beds needed.

Tax

I welcome the removal of a range of property-based tax reliefs. But the Government deserves no credit for this. We didn't know what most of those reliefs cost. We do know that speculators made a massive amount of money out of them. This Government and the speculators who benefited from their tax breaks are like fraudsters who know the game is up and who now have to move on to another scam. And that scam is assuredly the tax breaks for the private health industry. That industry is being driven not by the health needs of the people but by the profit motive of speculators and shareholders The Minister promised to keep those on the minimum wage out of the tax net and to keep those on the average industrial wage out of the higher tax band. He promised that in Budget 2005 but in the past year many in those categories were allowed to slip back into the tax net or into the higher tax band. He must guarantee that that will not happen again in 2006.

Housing

The Minister spoke of a significant package of social and affordable housing. But we heard nothing to provide for the 73,000 new social housing units required by 2012 and as recommended by the National Economic and Social Council. For a decade this Government has totally abandoned housing policy to the market and the losers have been those people in the 48,000 households on the local authority waiting lists. This Budget also fails to address the spiralling cost of house prices which place homes beyond the reach of people even on incomes above the average industrial wage.

Disability

Like Health, this Budget has been a major disappointment for peope, with disabilities. For years we have sought a Cost of Disability Payment which recognises the additional costs and burdens borne by people with disabilities. The rate of unemployment among disabled people is disgracefully high. And many of these are people who are kept out of employment not by their disability itself but by the fact that they lose many State benefits when they go to work. That's why a Cost of Disability Payment is essential and I deplore the Government's failure once again to deliver it.

Transport

The Minister used the Budget to re-announce the Transport 21 package which was itself a recycled package. But like so much else in this Government's record that package does not measure up to scrutiny. Public transport provision is still totally inadequate and is virtually non-existent in many part of the country such as the Border region.

Conclusion

This is undoubtedly a pre-election budget. The Minister has his plans set out to win the General Election for Fianna Fáil in 2007 or perhaps next year. He and the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and their colleagues are hoping that the people have very short memories, that they will forget the waste and the inequality of the McCreevy years, the waste and the inequality that they are desperately trying to cover up now. But people are not so foolish. After nearly a decade of rule by this Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government the people know that this Coalition has squandered the opportunities of the economic boom. They have squandered the chances to build real equality and to develop our public services to the best European standard and beyond. We have every right to expect the best but this Government has disappointed us again and again. Nowhere is that more stark than in our health services for which this Government has nothing to offer in this Budget.

I predict that that Health will be the rock on which this Government and the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats Coalition will founder.

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